Walter John Ritter
When the pioneers came to the Darling Downs, they were adamant they were going to retain their heritage and values. Amongst many items, hard work and community help were a priority. They had a love of both. Present day farmers, who know from experience that the wide-open treeless plains are most suitable for agriculture, are astounded when they recall that these sturdy women and men much preferred to develop the timbered hills, given the enormous and continual work involved. The reasons for this were simple. They needed to have stock as well as grain for food and the plains did not produce nutritious fodder in winter, and they provide, unlike the trees on the hills, no shelter from the biting cold winter winds and frosts.
For the times people showed impeccable judgment .Additionally this was the pre-machine age. They, men and women, were not afraid to use the axe to produce firewood and clear the land; an adze to carve water troughs for animals out of huge tree trunks; a crow bar and shovel to sink holes for buildings and fences; a saw, hammer and nails to make slab huts; and a mallet and wedges to make slabs for huts and split posts for fencing. Plenty of hard physical work was fuelled by a menu-mostly unchanged- of corn beef, pickles, potatoes, pumpkin, cabbage and baked rice, sago, or custard. It was all, except the rice and sago, home grown. Dieticians of today, no doubt, would question it as balanced, but it developed the constitution, toughness and stamina and resistance to the various aches and pains so common worldwide.
This was the environment into which John Ritter was born in 1903. He, as he grew up, played rugby league on the playing fields of the Downs, which mostly were more akin to cow paddocks. He was recognised early in his career by representative honours and became respected for his toughness as a man to be avoided when one had the ball. On his inaugural visit to Sydney in his first year of playing rugby union after it was revived in Toowoomba, the Sydney press accorded him the sophisticated title of “The Iron Man”. It was an apt title.
A quiet, humble man, and whilst he would never admit he was proud of the title, deep down he was. Given the success of this title in a professional surf sport it was a pity he did not place a patent on it. Often, he would leave the field after a game with clothing torn apart, plenty of ‘claret’ discolouring his features, but he always walked off unaided. He always appeared for training and played the next week. His method of transport for the 45 kms from Mt Tyson to Toowoomba three times a week was by motorbike, mostly over unmade roads interspersed with rocks, tree stumps, branches and logs and the ever-present potholes. The family still have in their possession the carbide lamp –equivalent to about ten candles output- which provided the lighting for his bike. It had a greater use in advising any oncoming traffic, be it horse and sulky, horseman, or car, that there was someone coming rather than providing for him the wherewithal to dodge traffic hazards. There is no record of him having succumbed to any road disasters. That would be put down to good management and good luck.
Seasoned by a life of toil in the sun and hardened, even as an ‘apprentice’, as it were, by having to do heavy farm work before and after school with a walk of 6 kms each way to school, he brought to rugby union an affinity of revelling in the tough heavy stuff in the only way he knew, ‘full bore for the full eighty minutes’.
In his first year of rugby union he was an immediate success. He made the Queensland team and the Australian team to tour New Zealand in that year, 1931. Various circumstances, plus injuries, meant he did not play a Test there or in South Africa in 1934. In all these games he injected the culture he brought to his Toowoomba Club, Valleys, from his rural background; fanatical physical fitness (always in the pink), tireless worker, exceptional speed for a front row forward, an even temper, scrupulous fairness and a ‘do or die spirit for whatever team you are playing with.’
Although light for a front row forward, he weighed 82 kgs, he minimised that disadvantage by knowing from everyday farm work the science of leverage. He used that to advantage and realised, contrary to the decision of the captain to South Africa, Dr Alec Ross, and the Manager, Mr Wally Mathews, who both publicly stated that he should not have been selected for the tour because he was neither big nor strong enough to engage the huge Springboks. Ritter believed that it was how one applied the strength that mattered, and not the size. Finally after much taunting by the usually shy Ritter, supported by his touring mate and life-long friend, Bernie Donnelly, also a Test discard, they challenged the Test forwards to a series of scrums after the final Test and pushed them all over the place. John Ritter personally told the author this sitting in the grandstand at ‘John Ritter Oval’, named in his honour on account of the continuing assistance and advice he gave to the Dalby Club, which he was instrumental in establishing. He was wearing his Australian blazer. He died a few months later.
He was full of anecdotes. He bore no grudges. He was aware of the parochialism of New South Wales Rugby officialdom, still living in the past that the Waratahs had consisted of all players from that State plus one Queenslander, Tom Lawton, who was studying there but was selected, and it was their determination to control Australian rugby.
It became clear from Ritter’s conversation that many of these ‘Mexicans from south of the border’ were not too upset if Australia was beaten by a team consisting of all players from that State, preferring that scenario to winning with some Queenslanders. He did not state whether this was factual or not; merely repeating what was the gossip, possibly only in Queensland.
Ritter had a wonderful sense of humour. He was reported as saying after his return from South Africa that he would write a book entitled “Eight months travel for eight hours football”. He never wrote the book. It would have made interesting reading. He laughed as he told the author:
“There is one thing sure in life, you will always find someone who will cut you down to size. My father did it to me. He met me at Toowoomba Railway Station at five o’clock in the morning on my return from South Africa and at seven o’clock I was dumping wool in the wool press in the woolshed. It was shearing time.”
He would have liked to have time to tell, particularly to his mother, that whilst he did not play much football he had a great time polishing his hunting and shooting skills. He was famous as a kangaroo shooter locally and as a buffalo hunter in the Northern Territory. His enthusiasm for the game never abated. His home outside Dalby was much favoured as a billet for visiting teams. Perhaps there was another attraction, he had two very attractive daughters.
A man of determination, he lived by the motto “No point in worrying about the other fellow being wrong when you are right,” His father may have cut him down to size in the woolshed but “ No one could cut him down to size on the football field.” That would be a fitting epitaph, or it could very well be his favourite saying watching rugby in later years: “ Hit ‘em around the ankles with all your might- that’s how you cut the opposition down to size!”
When John Ritter went to New Zealand in 1931 with Australia he had no experience at playing against other countries. At the time of his selection he was 27- years- of -age, and weighed 12st 5lbs. Two others in the pack weighed less, but they were not front rowers. It was the first time since 1913 that a fully representative Australian team had visited New Zealand.
Rugby had re-surfaced in Queensland in 1929, being dormant since 1914.There were 25 on the Syd Malcolm-captained team and there were 10 matches. It must have been a somewhat depressing situation for John Ritter, but he was only selected for one match, the second on tour, against Southland. It was an 8 to 14 loss. Though dispiriting, it must be noted that the Australian props were Malcolm Blair, and Bill Cerutti. The one game Ritter did play he was the hooker, taking over from Eddie Bonis. There appear to be a number of selection disparities on the tour as P.A Clark played only two games, and Harold Tolhurst, Frank Reville Dinny Love and Fred Whyatt only got in three games.
It must be noted that Ritter, Clark, Reville and Whyatt were Queenslanders, certainly suggesting a New South Wales bias. The manager and the captain were from NSW. In 1932 Ritter was prop for Queensland against the All Blacks (8-28), and played for Toowoomba against them(6-30). However, on the basis of his performances he was selected on the 1933 South African tour, captained by Alec Ross.
He was the second lightest forward, at 170 lbs. Because of his lack of bulk, he was only picked in five of the 23 games, which on the surface seems unfair, as his Queensland hooker, Eddie Bonis was an essential part of the Australian scrums, and they had effected a strong partnership at the State level.
The games he played were against Western Transvaal (20-3), Griqualand West (9-14), North Eastern Districts (31-11, try), South Western Districts (21-14) and Western Province and Universities (3-3). He was in only one losing game, yet ten of the 23 were lost.
Ritter appears not to have been provided with adequate opportunities on two tours. Though he did not play in a Test, he played honourably in six non-Test games during his career. He reinforced his soundness by playing for Queensland against New Zealand again in 1934 (14-31), and also for An Australian XV (6-11).
In 1935 he played for Queensland against the visiting Maori, a match spectacularly won by the Reds, 39 to 22. Then he played for Toowoomba against them (13-35) and was in the return Queensland game (13-15). That ended his representative career, and he showed that given the chance a lightweight prop could handle the best that the All Blacks or the NZ Maori could throw at him.